Lions Club International is the largest service organization in the world. In fact, the Lions Club’s simple but powerful motto is: We Serve.
The organization dates back to 1917, and the first Pittsburgh-based Lions Club started in 1922. At the time of its inception, it was a club for men only, but women have been welcomed into the organization since 1987. Lions Club International now has 1.4 million Lions around the world, spread across 50,000 Lions Clubs in more than 200 countries.
Though it has five global causes, vision care has always been one of the nonprofit’s core areas of dedication. In fact, Helen Keller spoke at a Lions Club International Convention in 1925 and urged its members to become ‘Knights of the Blind in the crusade against darkness.’
We spoke with Lion Dr. Kamal Gella, who serves as district governor for District 14B, which covers the 35 Lions Club chapters in Allegheny County. Gella is a member of the Bloomfield-Lawrenceville Lions Club though his service as a Lion began in 1980 when he was a mere ‘Leo’ in India.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of Lions Club International?
Dr. Kamal Gella (Gella): Our mission is to empower Lions clubs, volunteers, and partners to improve health and well-being, strengthen communities, and support those in need through humanitarian services and grants that impact lives globally and encourage peace and international understanding. Our vision is to be the global leader in community and humanitarian service.
NHM: In what areas do the Lions focus their efforts?
Gella: We have five global causes—diabetes, vision, hunger, environment and childhood cancer. We work to improve the quality of life for those who are diagnosed with diabetes, and we want to prevent avoidable blindness and improve the quality of life of those who are blind and visually impaired. We support research projects for vision, and we give grants out for those afflicted with sensory impairment. We give out glasses and support the Eye Bank; we do that vis-à-vis the Lions of Pennsylvania Foundation.
To combat hunger, we pack and prepare food for Meals on Wheels. With the pandemic, there are thousands of people who are out of jobs who cannot make ends meet, so we are doing more and more food drives to support the local food banks.
We also serve to sustain and restore our environment. For example, in a collaboration with local Girl Scouts, we collect plastic water bottles that are then recycled into benches for local parks and communities.
We also support the needs of children and families affected with childhood cancer. We recently led a project in support of the local UPMC Children’s Hospital, raising $5,000 to purchase Nintendo games and equipment for children being treated for cancer, as it provides some distraction and normalcy for children who are in a situation that is anything but normal.
NHM: How and when did you first become involved with the Lions Club?
Gella: I joined a Leos Club in India in 1980 (a club for members between 18-35) and was president. After I came to this country and settled down, I joined the Johnstown Western Lions Club. When I changed jobs and joined Highmark in Pittsburgh, I transferred to the Bloomfield/Lawrenceville club because I didn’t want to have a break in my community service. I then had the opportunity to become a district governor and serve Allegheny County.
NHM: Who is a candidate for membership?
Gella: Lions need to be service-minded. They don’t need to give all of their time if time is a constraint; we have one monthly meeting and one service project. You’re looking at about four to five hours’ contribution every month.
We need to think out of the box about how to bring in new members, so our new focus is to promote branch clubs. A Lions Club chapter needs 20 members, but with a branch club, they can have a minimum of five members, can meet virtually and can do a community project that is close to their heart. Usually, a branch club is affiliated with a parent club—it will have the independence to do its service project and when they reach 20 members, they can be their own club. They can still operate independently and do their projects.
NHM: I know it’s a service organization but is there a social component to it?
Gella: Yes! You make friends in the Lions Club, and it is a good opportunity to have fellowship with other members. It is also an opportunity to grow your leadership qualities. We have a lot of training available on the Lions Club website that helps members grow those qualities.
NHM: Can you talk about some service projects that Lions in District 14B has engaged in, either inside or outside the local community?
Gella: Recently, we collected different items for Kentucky flood victims such as dehumidifiers, box fans, simple tools, baby items and more, and we personally delivered them in a truck and rolled up our sleeves and helped clean up Kentucky. Other projects include planting trees in a Pittsburgh park with park rangers and providing meals to the staff of ManorCare. A potential ‘Spring Rally Service Project’ for the Northern Allegheny chapter will be putting together 100 personal hygiene kits for an organization that serves the needy; it will be a joint project with the Girl Scouts.
We are working on starting a Lions Club at the Allegheny County Jail for people to introduce them to community service, which they can continue after they come out of the system.
NHM: Tell me about Lions Club International conventions.
Gella: Every year, we have international conventions all over the world; I just came back from one in Montreal and the next one is in Boston. It helps you meet people from other countries, experience other cultures, and even if you’re traveling on personal trips, you can go to local Lions Club meetings and enjoy the fellowship.
NHM: Why should people look into joining a Lions Club?
Gella: What we learned from the pandemic is there are a lot of people in the community that need help, and that it is time to serve. It’s important that the younger generation embrace organizations like the Lions Club to serve the community in need. And we are blessed that we are in a position to help others, as Lions is a nonprofit organization and it provides a platform to serve the community.
To learn more about the Lions Club, visit https://www.lionsclubs.org/en.